Stories on and off the screen
The plot thickens around Perham this week during the 100th anniversary of the East Otter Tail County fair, but 30 years ago the plot was really thick at the Prairie Drive-In Theater.
"The last few years we were open the fair just killed us," Dave Quincer said.
The Quincer family owned and operated both seasonal drive-ins here in Perham and Wadena. Dave continues the family tradition running The Cozy Theater in downtown Wadena.
"As a kid growing up, this is what I always wanted to do," he said. "I spent every night in the summers as a kid at the drive-ins and the theater."
Dave graduated from college with a degree in accounting and set off to work for the government instead.
"It wasn't where my heart was."
He moved back to Wadena in 1992.
A tinge of irony to our story, Dave's departure from the area was a major factor in the closing of the Perham drive-in back in July of 1987.
His upcoming nuptials and subsequent move to Iowa left both drive-ins, and the downtown theater in Perham, in the hands of his father and uncle. Without Dave around, there just weren't enough hands to keep all the reels spinning.
His uncle Don and father Rich had to run the Wadena drive-in two years longer, with Rich running projectors and Don selling tickets.
Two years later, the Wadena drive-in would shut down its projectors for good in July of 1989. July is a bittersweet month for local drive-in memories.
"Our last weekend we had a really good weekend," he said.
As a seasonal business, the Prairie Drive-in faced continual competition, not only from the fair but also from innovation.
Videotapes were creeping into the weekend plans of customers. Similarly, the theater industry today faces even more competition from Netflix, pay-per-view to the Internet.
"We had some lean years in the middle 80s but business has actually come back," Quincer said. "With the present economy, people aren't buying as many DVDs."
The airport in Perham also had an impact on the drive-in in the latter years of the 80s.
The airport was interested in the property to expand runways, in order to land larger planes and would eventually take over the property in June of 1988.
Quincer noted many nights when crop dusting planes would zoom right next to and behind the giant screen.
The screen at Wadena was 60 feet off the ground and 90 feet wide; Perham's was a little smaller.
"The airport had been after us a couple years. It kind of became a waiting game. I still remember the last time we went out there late spring of 1988 to get the last of our stuff," said Quincer. "Every spring I get drive-in fever."
The final touches to the demise of the Perham drive-in were the removal of the screen and moonlight tower that lit up the field at night. If only that tower could talk today. It would have about as many stories as Dave Quincer.
The 80s were a much different time than the present. It was certainly a tad more rowdy. One place for people to act up a bit was at the drive-in. Quincer has countless stories of craziness that occurred.
As time progressed, drunk and unruly customers, mostly kids, started to become a nuisance both to other customers and business.
"I guess it was a place where people went to safely drink," he said.
It was also a place where some people went to raise hell.
"We wanted those people out of there."
It wasn't just the cliché stories of sneaking a kid in the trunk to see a movie for free. Vandalism got to be a major issue.
The snack bar used to have windows where one could still see the movie screen while ordering refreshments.
Frequent vandalism required the Quincer family to board up those windows. They had to board up the projection hole, as riffraff were breaking and entering there, as well.
In Wadena, the family was forced to hire an off-duty police officer to monitor the grounds.
Naturally, they lost some customers and in the waning years of their business toed the line between enforcement and entertainment. It was give and take and part of the times.
Quincer recalled a late May incident where Otter Tail County officers requested to swing through the grounds. Their concern was too much underage drinking.
"Some idiot started throwing beer bottles at the squad car."
Deputies shut the drive-in down immediately.
"We locked ourselves in the snack bar and by order of the officers my dad announced we had to shut down."
The lights went out. The horns were blasting. The beer bottles were chucked. It was a mad scene. But this was just one instance.
"After that we had a good summer. I still have a lot of good memories," said Quincer. "Not all the nights were like that."
In its heyday, around 1976, 600-900 people would attend triple features, what was then known as the dusk to dawn show. These were held Memorial Day, the 3rd of July and Labor Day.
The last night of showings in Perham was July 26, 1987: Secret of My Success, starring Michael J. Fox and The Bedroom Window, starring Steve Guttenberg.
The fourth of July show that year featured Earnest Goes to Camp and Tough Guys. Other hits from that summer were Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Three Amigos, Lethal Weapon and Some Kind of Wonderful. Crocodile Dundee and Ferris Bueller's Day Off opened the final year on Memorial Day.
A few drive-ins remain in Minnesota. They can be found in Warren, Litchfield, Luverne, Cottage Grove and Lake Elmo. One remains west of the border in Williston, N.D. and a handful can be found in South Dakota.
It's a shame Perham or Wadena cannot say the same.